Screens and Attention Deficit: 5 Ways to Keep Kids Focused and Grounded

A new study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. raises some serious concerns about the relationship between too much screen use and the emergence of symptoms similar to ADHD. If you are the parent of a teen or tween this is probably not news to you. Parents have known for a long time that screens are a huge distraction for their kids and it’s clear to us that their developing minds are being affected. We’ve all seen or heard of teens and tweens switching between Youtube, various social media feeds, and texts with friends, all while attempting to do a homework assignment. Each one of these screen based activities has the ability to cause distraction in and of itself, but grouped together they make it nearly impossible for the human brain to keep up.

While this new study doesn’t provide causation (meaning that screens are the cause of the increased ADHD symptoms) it does show a correlation. We may not know conclusively whether the negative impact of screens on developing brains is reversible (hopeful it is), but we do know that being constantly distracted, forgetful and unable to sit still is not a comfortable feeling, so it seems worth it to give our kids some tools in this arena.

Here are 5 ways to help your child stay focused and present without banning the tech altogether.

1. Create clear boundaries and time limits. The problem with tech today is that the devices are portable and the content is bottomless. Once a kid has a phone in their pocket it becomes a herculean feat to not check it every few minutes. Kids lack the impulse control and apps are intentionally designed to keep them coming back as often as possible - a recipe for disaster.  Sit down with your child and have a conversation about the ways in which too much screen time can affect their mood, their motivation, their ability to concentrate and their overall stress levels. Listen to them as well, they may have something to teach you - a conversation always works better than a lecture. Consider installing the Moment app on their phone so that they can get an actual picture of how much time they spend on the phone and which apps are taking up most of their attention. Then come up with some very clear “screen-free zones” and come up with a reasonable time limit for daily tech use. Write it down and stick to it.

2. When I work with families one of the main things that I try to teach alongside healthy tech use habits is the importance of mindfulness and body awareness in combating the negative effects of too much tech. Multiple studies show a link between regular short mindfulness practices in children to better awareness of the mind body connection, stronger ability to focus, less impulsivity and overall feelings of calm and wellbeing. Many kids won’t go for a regular mindfulness practice that includes sitting down to meditate (though some kids will!), but the principles of mindfulness can be harnessed day to day by using this  simple technique: Have your child set a mindfulness alarm or chime on their device for 1 - 2 times/day when they’re generally free (wake up and bedtime are good choices). When the chime rings they simply stop what they’re doing for a moment and pay attention to 3 of their senses one by one: Start with three deep full breathes. Then start with sound - what am I hearing right now? Focus on the sound for 1 minute. What do I feel on my skin? Focus on the sensation for 1 minute. What do I smell? Focus on the smell for 1 minute. While simple, this process helps to ground our bodies and quiet our minds. Is it as beneficial as sitting down for 10 - 20 minutes of meditation every day? Probably not, but it is a good starting point for generating awareness.

3. Never underestimate the power of nature. As modern humans we are more and more removed from nature, but time in nature has been proven time and again to alleviate stress, boost mood and help the brain focus. Whether it’s a walk in the neighborhood, hanging out at the park, visiting a flower shop or nursery or spending time with animals, nature play allows the mind and body to have a much needed break and reminds us of our most basic human desires - something that is easy to forget in this day and age. A wonderful resource for learning more about the physical and psychological benefits of nature on children is the Children & Nature Network.

4. Make sure your child understands that the apps they use are intentionally designed to keep their attention for someone else’s financial gain. It may seem heady, but kids hate the idea of being controlled and once they understand the way their apps work they may be inclined to take a rebellious attitude against them. Even if it doesn’t, teaching your child to be a critical and conscious consumer of media will help them avoid being consumed by it in the long run - knowledge = power.

5. Lastly, many kids these days have a hard time focusing when they are off their device because they’ve forgotten how to spend their free time engaged in other activities. It’s a lot easier to walk away from a smartphone for a while if there is something else to do that brings you pleasure and fulfillment. Encourage your child to spend time doing things offline that they really enjoy. I’m talking about the kind of engagement with something where you find yourself in a zone, flowing without thinking. Maybe this comes in the form of a sport, maybe it’s reading, maybe it’s dance, art, a musical instrument or building things. It really doesn’t matter as long as it engages your child’s mind and body and gives them authentic pleasure.

Do you have any ideas for helping kids with tech induced distraction? I’d love to hear what works for your family!

Wonderful resource on kids and meditation

Click here to read the full study published in JAMA